Reviewed by Mike G, November 14 2017
- Albums still matter – despite Spotify playlists.
- The art and craft of the DJ mix still matters – despite Spotify playlists.
- Eh, I’m not a complete Luddite, so as well as this year’s epic Best Albums Of 2017 mix, I’ve also put together two related Spotify playlists.
Thanks for your support in 2017. Have fun exploring my take on the year that was and I hope you discover something extraordinary.
Mike, founder of Ambient Music Guide
Index: Best New Albums
ALEX CRISPIN – Idle Worship (Sounds of the Dawn)
ANAAMALY – Urban Metta vol. 2 (Anaamaly.com)
ANIMAT – How to be a Shadow (Disco Gecko)
ASCENDANT – Particle Horizon (Synphaera)
AUTRAX – Rechauffe (Carpe Sonum)
AUTUMN OF COMMUNION – Metal (Txt/Bandcamp)
BONOBO – Migration (Ninja Tune)
BVDUB – Epilogues For The End Of The Sky (Glacial Movements)
CARBON BASED LIFEFORMS – Derelicts (Leftfield Records/Blood Music)
CHANNELERS – Slow Leaf Spell (Inner Islands)
CRISOPA – Transhumante (Sound In Silence)
DAVID FRANKLIN – Songs of Potential Embrace (davidfranklin.com)
DUB TREES – Celtic Vedic In Dub (Liquid Sound Design)
GAUSSIAN CURVE – The Distance (Music From Memory)
GHOST – Everything We Touch Turns Into Dust (n5md)
HIROTAKA SHIROTSUBAKI – Wet Petals (Naviar)
INNER TRAVELS – Sea of Leaves (Inner Islands)
IRRESISTIBLE FORCE – Kira Kira (Liquid Sound Design)
ISHQ – Aquaphonics (Virtual)
JAMES MURRAY – Floods Returned (Slowcraft)
JEAN-MICHEL JARRE – Oxygene 3 (Columbia)
LINGUA LUSTRA – Ice Age (Silent Records)
L.S.G. – Double Vision (Bonzai Progressive)
MANOS MILONAKIS – Festen (Moderna)
MY SILENT WAKE – Invitation To Imperfection (Opa Loka Records)
MYSTICAL SUN – Altitude (mysticalsun.com)
OLAN MILL – Orient (Hidden Vibes)
OLIVIA SUMMER – Landings (I Low You Records)
OMRR – Devils For My Darling (Dronarivm)
ONE ARC DEGREE – Cosmos In Flux (Synphaera)
PENGUIN CAFE – The Imperfect Sea (Erased Tapes Records)
SASHA – Refracted: Live at the Barbican (Late Night Tales)
SI MATTHEWS – Aurora (Txt/Bandcamp)
SIMON O’REILLY – Evolve (Bandcamp/CD Baby)
SOUNDS FROM THE GROUND – Native Soul (Upstream Records)
STACXK – Water Stories (stacxk.com)
STEVE ROACH – Spiral Revelation (Projekt)
THOMAS LEMMER – Ambitronic (Sine Music)
YOYU – Ordinary Moon (Archives)
Index: Best Reissues & Archive Releases
ALICE COLTRANE – The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane Turiyasangitananda (Luaka Bop)
BANCO DE GAIA – Big Men Cry (1997, reissue by Disco Gecko)
CRYSTAL MOON – Temple (1997, reissue by Txt/Virtual)
KEVIN BRAHENY – Lullaby for the Hearts Of Space (1980, reissue by Hearts Of Space)
MANTARAY – Numinous Island (1995, reissue by Demon Tea Recordings)
TRANCENDENTAL ANARCHISTS – Cluster Zone (1995, reissue by Silent Records)
Best New Albums
Idle Worship (Sounds of the Dawn)
Glittering, glowing, hand-tooled indie new age music from high realms. UK composer Alex Crispin’s debut solo album is assured and sophisticated, effortlessly morphing through different melodic shapes and ever-hovering clouds of beautiful chords. If you’re curious about the spirit of early DIY new age and its recent rehabilitation via labels like Sounds of the Dawn, Idle Worship is an ideal place to start.
Urban Metta vol. 2 (Anaamaly.com)
Music specifically designed for relaxation that’s not relaxation muzak – that’s a rare thing. Following on from last year’s Urban Metta vol. 1, this is more superb droney, beatless ambient from American Phil Strickland aka Anaamaly. He’s new to new age but well versed in electronica, and he brings all his talents to bear on these tonal, airy pieces full of slightly odd chord changes. There’s a compelling depth and freshness that makes this music work, regardless of whether you care for its stated purpose. Drop the preconceptions, dive deep and prepare to be moved.
How to be a Shadow (Disco Gecko)
Delicious electro-acoustic cinematic beats and grooves with dark edges and fine musicianship. UK duo Animat’s latest effort is an alternative score to the edgy philosophical French film Homme qui Dort (1974). On its own terms, however, the music sounds rather like a soundtrack to a noirish world of shadowy streets, smokey bars and late night espionage, along with a couple of detours into Balearic string-laden loveliness. How to Be A Shadow is a must for fans of cinematic trip hop like Twilight Archive and early Massive Attack.
Particle Horizon (Synphaera)
Los Angeles ambient trance duo Ascendant (Chris Bryant and Don Tyler) drop their 4th album and it’s glorious. You won’t hear more polished, more cosmic, more pure distillations of Berlin-school sounds and arpeggios by any other artist in ambient right now. They have the chops where it counts: composition, programming skills and astonishingly clear sound design.
Rechauffe (Carpe Sonum)
Remember the 90’s? Germany’s Autrax does, from euphoric glides to buzzing acid trance and gently clattering IDM-style ambient techno. His superb travelogue through ambient dance music’s first wave looks back with real fondness, yet it sounds like it belongs right here and now. Extra kudos for the perfect Jonah Sharp pastiche “Alien Community”.
AUTUMN OF COMMUNION
Pushing ever further into electronic wonderlands and sound signatures inspired by new-school ambient pioneer Pete Namlook (1951-2012), the latest opus from UK duo Autumn of Communion offers six slow tracks of 21st century space tech with some tasty dub underlays. Sprinkled with the metallic textures suggested by the title, Metal is exploratory, texturally inventive and rich in wonder.
Migration (Ninja Tune)
Having gone from bedroom trip hop to something a bit more famous, Bonobo’s big live shows of recent years haven’t stopped him crafting intimate albums for home. Migration is one of his greatest achievements: a perfectly judged collection of his trademark blurry, complex, pastoral instrumentals with full-blooded guest vocal tracks and multicultural tech-house grooves.
Epilogues For The End Of The Sky (Glacial Movements)
San Francisco’s prolific bvdub has further honed his droney, dreamy post-rock reveries into something profoundly sad and beautiful on Epilogues For The End Of the Sky. Distinct piano, guitar and reverberating deconstructed vocals occasionally rise above the sonic ocean, further enriching his lovely harmonies. Sombre stuff to be sure, yet somehow life-affirming.
CARBON BASED LIFEFORMS
Derelicts (Leftfield Records/Blood Music)
Sweden’s panoramic ambient trance practitioners return with a powerful release that revels in the duo’s trademark thumping slow mo beats, dense and lush arpeggios, and flirtations with the dark side. Also intact is their knack for using spoken voice bytes to construct odd narratives such as the fairytale-like “Nattvasen”.
Slow Leaf Spell (Inner Islands)
A masterclass in meditative music from Californian Sean Conrad aka Channelers that’s based on simple repetitions. The two tracks with solo dulcimer compare with the best of Popol Vuh’s most minimalist piano moments. Then comes a gorgeous circular folk melody played on dulcimer/guitar, and finally a long, loopy, shimmering synthscape that breathes like a living being.
Transhumante (Sound In Silence)
Surreal, tuneful ambient pop with some comforting anchor points – Ulrich Schnauss, Boards Of Canada, classic shoegaze – combined with the artist’s idiosyncratic touches and brilliant sense of harmonic progression. Crisopa has conjured a wonderful tension here, with often complex beat programming sitting beneath his beautifully soaring, densely textured tunes.
Songs of Potential Embrace (davidfranklin.com)
This American’s musician’s striking, personal vignettes stand out in the overcrowded new age piano and guitar space. Songs Of Potential Embrace shows an impressive ear for original harmonies and a deft touch with studio processing and experimental electronics. Some pieces are guitar-led, others piano, and a few veer into something weirder. Beautiful and fascinating.
Celtic Vedic In Dub (Liquid Sound Design)
Behold, the beauty of clean and juicy basslines. Dub Tree’s album Celtic Vedic, released earlier in 2017, is here stripped of most of its dense exotic dressings to reveal the glorious dubby basslines of Jah Wobble and esteemed producer Youth’s clean, punchy thwack. Echoes of the original’s wall of Eastern and Celtic sounds are still there – flutes, sitars, fiddles, honeyed female vocals – and, somehow, less ends up more. Much more.
The Distance (Music From Memory)
Gigi Masin is an Italian musician only recently recognised as a pioneer of the Balearic chillout sound first popularised by Cafe Del Mar. His new band Gaussian Curve’s superb second album expands somewhat beyond the spare jazzy motifs and purring synths he’s known for, perhaps due to the other two members making their presence felt. But the Venetian grace that makes Masin’s art so special remains ever present.
Everything We Touch Turns Into Dust (n5md)
Brilliant future noir techno from the edge by an American musician with a talent for dystopian narratives. Haunting, intricate constructions of bell-like tones, pretty bleeps and funky basslines mesh with the intensely cut-up beats of IDM. Everything We Touch Turns Into Dust is machine music with soul, what Detroit Escalator Co might sound like in a post-apocalyptic chillout lounge.
Wet Petals (Naviar)
Some drone ambient just glows with a natural light, an organic quality that lulls you into a reverie like no other music can. Wet Petals from young Japanese composer Hirotaka Shirotsubaki is such an album: steady, layered electronic-based drones meshed with field recordings, rich in colours yet somehow feather-light, as delicate as the petals of the album’s title. This is first-rate environmental ambient.
Sea of Leaves (Inner Islands)
American Steve Targo aka Inner Travels makes some of the most authentic new age music around, reverberating with the psychedelia and quiet awe that distinguishes the genre’s earliest DIY classics. Sea Of Leaves is a deeply gorgeous ode to the natural world, especially the title track with its slow guitar arpeggio floating on layers of sighing, sparkling synths.
Kira Kira (Liquid Sound Design)
Kira Kira is the first album from ambient dance pioneer The Irresistible Force (Mixmaster Morris) in nearly 20 years and it’s a multi-coloured psychedelic delight. Morris delivers nine original pieces of exotic, quirky, tuneful downtempo sprinkled generously with the sampled voice elements and jazzy, surreal looseness he loves so much. Production by the esteemed dub producer Youth brings it all vividly to life.
Psyambient master Matt Hillier aka Ishq is very prolific these days and his electronica releases vary widely. Aquaphonics marks Ishq’s return to tonality and droney harmonies and it’s both accessible and adventurous, based on curious dual themes of water and cosmic science fiction. Beatless but intricate, and blessed with his trademark immersive sound design, this is 120 minutes of glorious trippiness.
Floods Returned (Slowcraft)
UK composer James Murray reinterprets music drawn from three earlier albums on the exquisite Floods Returned and it’s easily approached as a standalone album if you haven’t heard the originals. The ringing, glistening synthetic drones hang on stately chord progressions evoking blurry memories and gentle melancholy. Some pieces like “Small Gestures” and “Give Blood” have churchy organ layers, making them sound almost liturgical.
Oxygene 3 (Columbia)
Forget his recent patchy collaborations; emusic pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre’s best format is solo and here’s proof. Oxygene 3 is a near-perfect 40 minutes of cosmic, richly harmonic electronica that doesn’t lean heavily on the 1976 original. Swirling ambient passages orbit three fine anthems that give a nod to bleepy Berlin school (Part 14), modern club trance (Part 17) and symphonic prog ala Vangelis (Part 2o).
Ice Age (Silent Records)
In the wake of last year’s sprawling Essence (2016), versatile Danish artist Lingua Lustra continues to quietly blow minds. Ice Age is epic beatless landscape music, among the best I’ve heard in this style for a while. He saves the best for last with “Infinite Reflection”, 12 minutes of stark, glacial beauty in a haunting minor key with a humming bassline that’s almost subsonic – play it loud. His Charia album from this year on Silent Records is also a fine thing.
Double Vision (Bonzai Progressive)
Germany’s Oliver Lieb, pioneer of 90’s club trance and some of its downtempo spin-offs, resurrects his L.S.G project after 13 years with spectacular results, reclaiming a genre soiled by Dutch cheesemeisters and Eurotrance hacks. This is a double album, with one half downtempo and the other mostly 125 bpm tech-trance. L.S.G’s lean sound is many things, sometimes all at once: cosmic, soothing, dark, euphoric, muscular and deeply, deliciously hypnotic.
Canada’s modern classical label Moderna Records keeps delivering the good stuff. Greek composer Manos Milonakis originally wrote these 12 ensemble pieces as the score for a stage play. Along with the expected violins, cellos and piano there’s intriguing use of synths and loops as he explores fresh ideas in the spaces between tonal classical music and modern electronica. Festen is superb mod classical that’s both experimental and easily accessible.
MY SILENT WAKE
Invitation To Imperfection (Opa Loka Records)
UK death/doom metal band My Silent Wake takes a left turn into spectral Gothic ambient on Invitation To Imperfection and the result is a moving, visceral masterpiece. There’s acoustic guitar, pump organ, flute, tribal percussion, dissonant synths and more; the roll call of instruments is long, yet all are sparingly used. The atmosphere is medieval throughout, slightly grimy and always evocative. “Return of the Lost At Sea” is the most haunting thing I’ve heard this year.
San Francisco’s Mystical Sun delivers 70-minutes of proggy psychedelic spacemusic at its finest. Drawn mostly from late-night live improvisations, Altitude continues his recent trend towards long epics and being a bit more more instinctive and less craft-focused. He still loves his analogue gear and customised sounds, like the stomping opener’s voice-like synth lead, a signature sound I’ve heard from no one else. The beatless tracks have a familiar lush, celestial warmth that’s also uniquely his own.
Orient (Hidden Vibes)
UK composer Alex Smalley fashioned this striking work which sits somewhere in the spaces between classical, electronic drone and vocal chants of uncertain origin, sprinkled with the most subtle of Eastern aromas. Grand, arcing clouds of reverberating strings hover in the ether, occasionally receding to reveal lovely harp or liturgical-like group chants. Orient is exceptional; what initially seemed a pleasant-enough drone release ended up sounding like nothing else I’ve heard this year.
Landings (I Low You Records)
The mysterious Olivia Summer releases his fourth ambient album on the quirky Tokyo-based I Low You Records and it’s another melodious, experimental lo-fi delight. Landings is both amusing and serious, meshing the retro pop culture sampling and cut-up aesthetics of vaporwave with eerie cinematic cues, pastoral loveliness and some jaw-droppingly pretty drones. Original and brilliant.
Devils for my Darling (Dronarivm)
The surreal cover art of a headless woman standing in a brightly coloured garden may be hard to expel from your mind, but the fidgety and semi-abstract music on Devils For My Darling is rather less disturbing, if still pretty weird. Egyptian composer Omrr proves a deft hand at creating a dreamy kind of impressionism that wanders freely without losing its anchor, forged with the bubbling tones of African thumb piano, acoustic guitars, hovering strings and layers of field recordings.
ONE ARC DEGREE
Cosmos in Flux (Synphaera)
While not as obviously tuneful as their blinding debut album The Ocean Palace (2016), Greek duo One Arc Degree’s followup long-player is brave and beautiful, taking their space tech and dub into more overtly percussive realms. At different times it echos the progressive breaks of Sasha or Hybrid, the clattering complexity of Detroit techno and the stop-start dynamics of ambient drum ‘n’ bass, yet none of it sounds derivative. Superior widescreen beats for psychonauts.
The Imperfect Sea (Erased Tapes Records)
Remember the cheery, folksy minimalism of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra? Founder Simon Jeffes left the world in 1997 but recently his son Arthur resurrected the name in shortened form and carried on his dad’s eclectic spirit, if not precisely his sound. The Imperfect Sea is a delight, retaining the experimental touch and Glass-like classical minimalism of yore but drawing more on modern electronica and even dance music for ideas, the latter reflected in covers of Kraftwerk and Simian Mobile Disco.
Refracted: Live at the Barbican (Late Night Tales)
For me, Sasha’s progressive electronica credentials lie less in his lauded club DJ sets and more in his infrequent forays into composition and full-length albums. Exhibit 1: the epic ambient breakbeat of Airdrawndagger (2002). Exhibit 2: Scene Delete (2016) and this companion album, a double-length document of his first-ever live show as a musician. It’s cinematic, mostly instrumental and superbly executed, the work of finely tuned ears and a fantastic backing band. The midtempo reworkings of his club hits “Belfunk” and “Xpander” are every bit as lush and ecstatic as you might imagine.
A Si Mathews album is a rare treat – his only other solo release is Tales From Ten Worlds (2006), an inspired tribute to the lush psychedelia and ambient dance motifs of classic 90’s Fax Records. That’s an almost infinite world in itself to explore, and on the fantastic Aurora he explores more warm, melodic, sci-fi-flavoured electronica in a similar style without even a hint that he’s repeating himself.
Evolve (Bandcamp/CD Baby)
An extraordinary and original downtempo debut from Irish multi-instrumentalist Simon O’Reilly that blends muted trip hop, surreal lounge, Morricone-style retro film music and proggy Floyd-like improvisations. It’s electronica in some respects but with loads of live playing, from electric guitars to cinematic strings and brass. Dense with ideas and labyrinthine in construction, Evolve demands some patience before revealing its moody secrets and multi-coloured wonders.
SOUNDS FROM THE GROUND
Native Soul (Upstream Records)
The UK duo known for their slow motion bottom-end boom have muted that quality somewhat on parts of Native Soul, their latest album in a rock solid 20-plus year run of releases. The early tracks instead emphasise their gift for dreamy, pastel-coloured widescreen loveliness. The punchier ambient dub appears in the album’s second half, notably “Red Light Green Light” with its funky bass and cool Minimoog lead, and “Heavy Load” which is both rich with melody and growling with menace.
Water Stories (stacxk.com/Bandcamp)
Electric guitar, dark piano and haunting synths are the cast in this brilliant piece of cinema of the mind from London-based composer Johan Englund aka Stacxk. Thematically, the ten instrumentals draw on Nordic winter stories told late at night about trolls, giants and other beings of legend. Water Stories is compelling dark ambient that eschews that genre’s atonal noise, instead seducing with a perfectly judged mix of sonic weirdness and recognisably musical progressions.
Spiral Revelation (Projekt)
Emusic pioneer Steve Roach started out analog, and to analog he returns on this masterful excursion through spacey landscapes and spiralling Berlin school sequencer patterns. As with Skeleton Keys (2015), he’s using only analog synths and hardware. That’s of interest to more than just tech heads, because there are moments on Spiral Revelation when you can sense the player’s physical connection to the instrument that Roach has long striven for, minor imperfections and all.
Ambitronic (Sine Music)
If you love Balearic chill but despair at the dominance of bland cafe muzak, then Thomas Lemmer’s sublime Ambitronic will heal the pain. Drawing on several of the genre’s many strands – lush oceanic washes, warm piano and the euphoric arpeggios of ambient trance – he’s created glowing slowbeats of exceptional depth and harmonic richness. It’s music for sunsets, sure, but also for eerie twilights thanks to a certain tension that makes the album all the more satisfying.
Ordinary Moon (Archives)
In the words of the artist himself, this is a collection of heart songs and field recordings from the forests of Manitoba in Canada. Except there are no songs in any conventional sense on Ordinary Moon but drone-based musical pictures, like impressionist paintings rendered with enveloping electronic sound. Yoyu’s beatless love letters to nature are delicate and vivid, on par with some of Ishq’s most evocative environmental ambient.
Best Reissues & Archival Releases
The Ecstatic Music of Alice Coltrane (Luaka Bop)
Perhaps nothing annoys contemporary jazz purists more than a lauded artist going right off the map and Alice Coltrane (1937-2007) did it in style with her mystic excursions into ecstatic group chants. This archival release draws on four obscure albums dating 1982-95 when she was running an ashram in California. Her solo and group mantras with synth accompaniments have a hypnotic power that’s hard to describe; it has some echoes of 80’s Popol Vuh but is generally more energetic and gospel-like, the work of a singular talent crafting a very personal music.
BANCO DE GAIA
Big Men Cry 20th Anniversary (1997, reissue by Disco Gecko)
Big Men Cry is the the third in a sequence of four globetrotting ethno techno-trance classics released in the 90’s by Toby Marks aka Banco De Gaia. If this one is underappreciated, it’s only because disputes between artist and label meant it received almost no promotion at the time. It’s glorious stuff, dialling up the Pink Floydish proggy element on gems like the dubby “Celestine” (check that organ and sax!) and the beatless psychedelic tapestry of “One Billion Miles Out”.
Temple (1997, reissue by Txt Recordings)
Before psyambient master Matt Hillier became Ishq, he was dabbling in a wide range of early electronic dance music and its chillout hybrids. Crystal Moon was a short-lived downtempo duo with his pal Jake Stephenson (RIP) resulting in this intricately textured one-off album. Temple contains some of the prettiest downbeat he’s ever put his name too, most notably “Silent Pool” which loops a liturgical chant and wraps it in warm bass and synthetic layers of the deepest harmony.
Lullaby for the Hearts Of Space (1980, reissue by Hearts Of Space)
One of the most texturally seductive sounds of America’s early West Coast ambient scene was an analog wonder called the Serge Modular synthesizer. Kevin Braheny was among its most gifted players and this is his long out-of-print debut album, so named because the music was made specially for the legendary Hearts of Space radio program. The two long tracks both have that luminous, floating Serge sound, and some surprising sax solos add extra soul.
Numinous Island (1995, reissue by Demon Tea Recordings)
A welcome reissue of an obscure and overlooked classic by the Oz-Jap duo Mantaray (Ray Castle and Susumu Yokota). This surrealist masterpiece came out on San Francisco’s Silent Records during the label’s mid 90’s heyday and remains the only album the duo ever made, a free-styling travelogue of tribal sounds and psyambient colours that’s subtle, often abstract and deeply elemental. Sometimes, an album’s title says everything: Numinous Island is as exactly as wonderful as it sounds.
Cluster Zone (1995, reissue by Silent Records)
Australia’s Paul Bambury (RIP) was something of an outsider to the early dance music scene but was already well versed in electronic music when he encountered techno. Maybe that perspective is why he and Pam Thompson’s one album as Trancendental Anarchists is rather special and still stands out today, from the layered, brooding glides that open the album to the euphoric ambient trance masterpiece “Epiphany”. A beautiful reissue from Silent.